This is part 8 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with Barry Lyndon…
I was initially reluctant to include 1975’s Barry Lyndon in my series of Anti-Kubrick diatribes. I had heard that it was long and dull and not particular rich in the misanthropic themes and mathematical acumen that characterizes Kubrickâ€™s best and most infamous works. I was also aware that the film never held a special place in popular culture the way his other masterpieces have. Barry Lyndon is known for some admirable cinematographic innovations, an excellent classical music soundtrack, and an authentic look and feel for a period piece. But thatâ€™s about it.
Thus, it would be like fruit that hangs too low: easy to criticize and instructive only for those who wish to make good movies. Such a review would not fit in with this series in which we discuss how Kubrickâ€™s undisputed genius coupled with his unwarranted hostility towards Mankind has been having a real negative impact on people for the last 45 years. A film has to be great first before it can have such an impact and therefore warrant such a discussion.
And from all accounts I had heard Barry Lyndon was not great.
Well, I have finally seen it, and it seems I had it mostly right all along. Yet I will include it in this series since despite its limitations Kubrick still couldnâ€™t help himself. He is still quite the anti-humanist in Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon suffers too much from Stanley Kubrickâ€™s misjudgments as a director to be considered a complete work. Ironically, these misjudgments are part laziness and part technical perfectionism.
Lazy? Stanley Kubrick? Why, yes, believe it or not.
In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick very often plagiarizes his own directorial style from A Clockwork Orange, which was shot only a few years prior, but with less reason and diminished effect. Take his penchant for starting in close up and then pulling out to reveal an entire scene, with characters staying stock still as if posing for a painting. The very first shot of A Clockwork Orange is like this and is brilliant. Alex and his droogs are sitting in the Korova Milk Bar, drinking their pharmacologically tainted beverages, and trying to make up their rassadocks about what brand of ultraviolence they should perform that evening, and so on.
The shot lasts for 1 minute and 34 seconds. You could not ask for a more ominous introduction to such a diabolical film. Read more about it here.
In Barry Lyndon, however, Kubrick seems to have run out of directorial ideas and resorts to what has now become just another trick in his cinematic bag. He does the same thing when introducing the scene in which the main character Redmond Barry and his cousin Nora Brady play cards. He does it when Barry and Lady Lyndon are with their infant child. He does as Barry engages in an orgy. He does it when Lady Lyndon is taking a bath, and in a few other places as well. Most obviously, he does it when Lady Lyndon and her adolescent son are just sitting there, perhaps contemplating what a useless rake Barry Lyndon is turning out to be. The shot goes from here:
In each case, there is little subtext. The danger and conflict are all pretty much superficial. And that is fine when you’re pointing and shooting just to get from one scene to another. But it is not when you’re being reflexive about itâ€¦when you’re Kubrick trying to be Kubrick. In those instances, audiences perk up and notice the hand of the director when it should be invisible.
Other examples of Kubrick phoning it in during Barry Lyndon would be the wooden acting he seemed to require of his leads. While the supporting cast was excellent (especially Patrick Magee as Chevalier de Balibari and Hardy Kruger as Captain Potzdorf), Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson were little more than zombies staring out into space half the time as Lord and Lady Lyndon.
I personally could have done as good a job as either of them since Kubrick basically told them to turn their faces into empty masks for the entire movie, and, essentially, not act. The only time O’Neal expresses emotion prior to his downfall is when he betrays Captain Potzdorf. He cries, but covers his face. And then Kubrick cuts away, as if he didn’t have faith that his actor could affect a good cry.
But what Kubrick doesn’t cover however is his delight at punching home the film’s main theme throughout its long, meandering plot: that it is wise to be dishonest, and foolish to be otherwise. To say Barry Lyndon is a cynical film would be a risible understatement. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that Kubrick almost finds it funny that a complete rogue like Redmond Barry can bluff and cheat his to the pinnacle of a corrupt and effete society that is Europe.
The film opens like so: a beautiful view and a duel, shot from afar so the humans seem little more than insects.
Then one man shoots and kills the other while the unperturbed narrator informs us that the whole affair was all over “the purchase of some horses.” I will argue that this sets the tone for almost the entire film: that human beings are such small, petty things amid the grandeur of the world around them. Their concerns should not be your concerns unless you wish to take advantage of them. Or laugh at them. This was more or less Redmond Barry’s cross-fingered credo throughout the first two hours and forty-eight minutes of a three hour and four minute film. Yes, he and the film changes after that. But by then it’s too little, too late.
Barry starts out earnest enough. As a young Irish farm boy, he initiates a duel with an English officer over his sweetheart’s hand. Later, when on the run, he is held up at gun point by a Captain Feeney and his son.
This is a most revealing scene given the cool, ruthless, rationalism expressed by the captain. Thief and vagabond that he is, he actually comes off as likeable. First, he is extremely polite and businesslike (“How do you do, Mr. Barry! And I am afraid we must get on to the more regrettable stage of our brief acquaintance.”). Second, he is clear thinking, well spoken, and intelligent. When Barry begs him to let him keep his horse, Feeney replies, quite correctly, “I should like to oblige you, but what with people like us, we must be able to travel faster than our clients. Good day, young sir.” Finally, he’s not without mercy. He let Barry keep his boots. Note that this is the last time Redmond Barry introduces himself by his real name until much later in the film, a mistake he does not repeat unless he absolutely has to.
Here is a list of artful swindles committed by Barry Lyndon as the film progresses:
2. He bails on his comrades during a battle.
3. He assumes the identity of an officer and escapes the army.
4. He tries to hoodwink Prussian Captain Potzdorf with this same false identity. Potzdorf doesnâ€™t buy it and recruits Redmond into the Prussian army instead of returning him to the British.
5. Later, he is retained by Potzdorf to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari a professional gambler whom the Prussians believe is an Irish spy.
6. Upon learning this, Barry turns double agent, joins with de Balibari, and facilitates his new friend’s escape.
7. He does this by impersonating de Balibari himself.
8. The two then make a decent living across Europe cheating at cards.
This is where we are when Redmond and has an affair his wife to be, the Lady Lyndon, who currently is married to old and crippled Charles Lyndon. Redmond then lies to Charles’ face about his intentions and induces the man to have a ghastly heart attack on the spot. The man drops dead soon after.
Once married to Lady Lyndon, Redmond has reached the pinnacle of society and becomes Barry Lyndon. But he alters his modus operandi not one bit. From here, he cheats regularly on his wife, physically abuses his wife’s son, accrues great debt, and, in general, lives recklessly and stupidly.
Now, what has this character done, in the two hours we have been with him since he left Ireland, that is honorable or attractive in any way? He distinguished himself in a battle as part of the Prussian army. That’s about it. That scene doesn’t even last 3 minutes. So going on this, we have a hero? Not likely. How about an anti-hero? Less likely, I would say, given that anti-heroes must be quick-witted and interesting in some way (like Alex from A Clockwork Orange), and I think even Kubrick would have admitted that Redmond Barry is not that.
I think the best way to describe the Redmond Barry character is that he is the story’s “protagino” (if I may coin a term). That is, he is a protagonist in name only. He is there simply because stories, out of habit it seems, need a warm body to fill that role. And there he is. For the vast majority of the film, we never see events through his eyes, we never feel for him or want for him. Rather, we watch on in a detached sort of way as he bamboozles his way through life. Kubrick does nothing to arouse our sympathies with his victims, or, if anything, he tries to trivialize or find humor in their sufferings.
The officer Redmond impersonates in order to escape from the British army deserved to lose his papers and his horse since he was gay and stupid enough to speak about his plans to his lover while bathing in a lake.
The young man of wealth whom de Balibari unfairly beats at cards had it coming since he was so pompous and pamperedÂ and not terriblyÂ good with a sword.
Charles Lyndon’s fatal heart attack is nearly comic in its timing as it comes the moment Redmond leaves the room. The poor man thrashes about, looking ridiculous in full make up, and shakes so madly he cannot even put pills in his mouth. Indeed, this is a sickening scene, largely because I suspect Kubrick played it for laughs. Judge for yourself here.
So, funny as a heart attack? Perhaps for Kubrick. In real life, watching a person in his death spasms could scar almost anyone.
Kubrick the misanthrope is in full form here in Barry Lyndon. He doesn’t want you to feel for his hero or for their victims. They’re human, you see. They are no more important to him than the dark little figures ruining the splendid scenery in the first shot of his painstakingly produced film.
Yes, Barry Lyndon has something of a heart in the end. Redmond redeems himself somewhat through his love for his son. He also deliberately misfires on his stepson in a duel. By the film’s end he has become honorable, and, ironically, this is what causes his downfall. Thus, the film achieves its tragic ending.
So this should negate Kubrick’s misanthropy in Barry Lyndon, right? This should prove that Kubrick indeed has a heart and is a humanist once and for all, yes?
No, it doesn’t. Not after nearly three hours of Barry Lyndon. When this change comes, it is too little, too late.
We had to wait two full hours for Redmondâ€™s entirely mundane love his for son to blossom and then another hour for him to make that one great heroic sacrifice: the sparing of his stepson’s life at the expense of his own. After that, there is no turning back. Redmond Barry made a decision, an honorable one, and sadly was made to suffer for it. This is the great dramatic moment of Barry Lyndon, the very heart and essence of the film, but it should have come at the 80th minute, not the 180th. Clearly Kubrick didnâ€™t think much about great dramatic moments while he was counting F-stops on his fancy NASA-supplied cameras in order to make Redmond Barryâ€™s tedious adventures of fraud and debauchery look like they really occurred in the 18th century. An 18th century, by the way, that happens to contain camerasâ€¦and Stanley Kubrick.
One century with Kubrick was certainly enough.
Next up: Full Metal Jacket.